Saturday, November 7, 2009

Imagination Takes Flight

About six months ago, I entered a public art competition, organized by the city government of Beaverton, Oregon, to design a piece of art for the municipal library. This airy, wood-and-glass structure is designed to look like a stylized rain-forest. It's beautiful and welcoming. But adult traffic tends to flow from the ground floor entrance straight ahead, into the children's area, rather than up the grand double staircase where the grown-ups belong. The art was wanted as a gentle way to separate the flock.

194 people entered the competition, and after several rounds of winnowing, I won the commission.

My idea is a wrap-around portal mural entitled Imagination Takes Flight that depicts a sort of literary flight deck, with animal aviators scrambling a squadron of books into the skies. It will consist of a diptych flanking the doorway. The composition is based on a cover I did many years ago for Spider magazine. This portal mural is complemented by a long frieze, that will show the animals flying through the clouds on books, papyrus rolls, cuneiform tablets and possibly a laptop or two. There's also a wrap around mural for the children's reference desk, where squirrels with pencil navigation wands guide the action.

To paint the portal mural on stretched canvas, I needed a big space taller than my studio. As it happens, Friday Harbor Middle School has an empty sixth-grade classroom and as of this year, no formal art program. I asked if I could use the space in exchange for visits by students and teachers as Imagination takes Flight takes shape. The idea is to paint the mural on stretched canvas in Friday harbor, then, when complete, roll it up and transport the canvas to teh library. Portions of the mural will be installed like wallpaper. The portal mural will be restretched.

So far I've been FHMS artist-in-residence for two weeks.

Here's my progress so far.

11/1/09: Stretching the canvas

I built stretchers out of 2x4s purchased at our local lumberyard, Browne's, and fastened together with star-drive screws. The stretcher is 63 inches wide by 135 inches tall. The canvas is a roll of Winsor and Newton, 63" x100 yards, gessoed, from Dick Blick. This is shorter than the actual portal, so I wrapped the top part of the canvas around the top of the stretcher. When I've finished the lower portion of the portal mural I'll unstretch it and move the canvas down.

Once the canvas was stretched, I sprayed the back of the canvas with water so it would tighten up.

11/4/09: Toning the canvas

I bought a gallon of a warm violet Benjamin Moore interior flat latex house paint, and applied it with a roller. This creates a middle value base for the painting. Instead of the classic bolus ground (a brick red used by Renaissance painters) chose violet to harmonize the relatively saturated, warm to cool palette. From this middle tone I will paint up to lights and down to darks.

11/5/09: Squaring up the drawing and beginning the underpainting.

Squaring up is a venerable method that has been used by artists for centuries to enlarge a drawing. I created an 8.5x11 inch color sketch of my composition and gridded it with 1/2 inch squares. On the canvas I gridded 1 foot squares, then transferred the drawing square by square.
Once that step was complete, I began blocking in the major shapes of the composition in acrylic, starting with semi-transparent washes and working up to opaque passages. I have a lot of ground to cover so I'm using 16 oz. jars of Golden Acrylics and a 2 inch house painter's brush.

11/8/09: Refining the underpainting.

At this point I'm still working in acrylic, refining the silhouettes of the major figures. and changing portions of the composition. The stacks of books and the size and position of the giraffe have undergone several changes to get to this point. I've also moved the position of the turtle's arms. I'm nearly ready to switch to oil.

The Plague Doctor is In


While the H1N1 pandemic rages and our lawmakers debate the merits of national healthcare, my exhibit Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History, has a new home for the next three months: the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC. The 30 paintings and 7 maps are from my book Outbreak, published by Crown in 2005. As you may recall from previous posts, Outbreak focuses on six diseases: bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever and influenza, with sidebars on toxoplasma, malaria and AIDS. As the title suggests, this is not just a recounting of epidemics, but a social history of public health through the lens of disease.

Armistice Day, San Francisco, 1918

The NMHM started out in 1862 as the Army Medical Museum, a division of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. It is on the campus of the Walter Reed Army hospital. To complement the paintings, the staff selected a few items from the Museum's collection of 24 artifacts. Visitors are greeted by a life-size costumed model of a beak-masked plague doctor. The Museum also installed four exhibit cases with artifacts and specimens related to the diseases in the book—a wax model of the face of a 15-year-old boy with lesions resulting from small pox, a tuberculosis-prevention brick engraved with the words, “Don’t spit on sidewalk ,” a lung that shows signs of bronchopneumonia resulting from the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the microscope of Walter Reed himself, the man who led the team that determined the etiology of yellow fever.

Memento Mori

The show opened on Halloween (it runs through January 22). For the opening, children made and wore medieval plague masks stuffed with dried rosemary, and created macaroni skeletons engaged in the "Dance of Death."

I'll be speaking at the Museum on December 5.